On August 16, a lawsuit was filed for a case called SoundExchange, Inc. v. Sirius XM Radio Inc. Plaintiff SoundExchange's complaint alleges that Sirius XM underpaid royalties for public performance of copyrighted music recordings on its satellite digital audio radio service (SDARS). SoundExchange is a non-profit entity that collects digital performance royalties from statutory license users and distributes them to artists and copyright owners.
Royalty rates are set by the Copyright Royalties Board (CRB). The CRB separately sets royalty fees for satellite radio and commercial webcasters under the statutory license. As explained in SoundExchange's complaint, regulations provide that "royalties for webcasting are calculated on a per-performance basis rather than as a percentage of gross revenues: the webcasting royalty is assessed for each transmission of a sound recording to a listener, while the SDARS royalty is assessed as a percentage of the revenues the service generates."
SoundExchange alleges that Sirius XM improperly allocated excessive amounts of revenue to its webcasting service – which requires lower royalty payments – thereby reducing royalties payable for its satellite radio service. Additionally, SoundExchange alleges that an independent audit revealed Sirius XM underpaid royalties, and that regulations require that amount owed – as determined by the auditor – be paid. According to SoundExchange's complaint: "To date, Sirius XM already has unjustifiably withheld more than $150 million in royalties owed to artists and copyright owners under the SDARS statutory license."
The case is likely to be a one-off because Sirius XM is the only provider of SDARS and music webcasting services. But given that Sirius XM has approximately 34 million subscribers and generates significant public performance royalties – not to mention the $150 million in unpaid royalties figure alleged in the complaint – a legal resolution will be tremendously important for copyright owners.
That said, copyrighted sound recordings are valuable property and it is the role of Congress -- and its delegated authorities at the Copyright Royalty Board -- to provide clear boundary rules defining the scope of exclusive rights and expectancy interests in copyrighted property. Clear rules are a necessary foundation for ensuring that copyright owners can maximize the value and returns for their labors and investment. If nothing else, the case may furnish occasion for more clearly specify for future purposes how revenues and royalties are allocated between SDARS and webcasting services.
This blog post does not express a position on the correct prospective outcome in SoundExchange, Inc. v. Sirius XM Radio Inc. The case is only at its beginning in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Sirius XM has not yet filed any detailed pleadings in response to those SoundExchange allegations. Stay tuned.